Due to talking and offering my condolences to a couple friends who have been grieving for loved ones, I’ve been drawn to think about and share my own experiences and sitting shiva. A note of caution, this post may be a trigger for some.
It’s said that there are five stages to mourning, but everyone does so in their own way. The first reaction may be denial and isolation, a defense mechanism to deal with overwhelming emotions and shield from the shock of someone’s passing. Those emotions may change into anger and/or guilt. Deflecting anger onto others and thoughts of of “why?” and “I should have” commonly arise. Bargaining is a reaction to feelings of helplessness and a way to try to regain control. Thoughts of “if only I had” or “I’ll do this if” is another defense to getting through rough emotions. The fourth stage is depression and sadness from loss. When one of my dogs passed away, the other moped around because she couldn’t find him. The longest stage to reach, if ever, is the calmness of acceptance and making peace. Because bereavement is so personal, the stages are experienced differently, some not at all, and not necessarily in any particular order.
The process may vary because mourning is a case by case basis, so to speak. When my golden retriever was put to sleep I went through all five stages, with an emphasis on anger, guilt, and depression. It was so unexpected that my father, who at the time lived across town, took her to the vet while I was at work. I felt guilty because I didn’t get to say goodbye and pissed at him for not calling me so I could be there. It took a long time to accept her passing and even years later I’m still not ready to live with another golden retriever. But a couple years ago, a silver tabby decided I needed a familiar again (as cats are wont to do) and since I’m only a mere human I had no say in the matter.
The reactions from my aunt’s passing were vastly different. She had lived 13 years longer than her original prognosis so by the time her health and quality of life were minimal I was expecting “the call”. I was in shock from the finality of it, but knew it was a matter of time. By the time I landed in California the next day, I was fairly at peace with her passing. Sadness took longer, but that’s to be expected. Sitting shiva, a wonderful part of the bereavement process in Judaism, was the best experience in terms of death and mourning. It’s structured like a cocoon to help the bereaved heal emotionally and spiritually.
After the funeral, the seven days of intense mourning begin for immediate family members. Shortly after we returned to my aunt and uncle’s house, family and friends started arriving with food. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many bagels and platters with all the fixings in my life, but that and food brought throughout the week are supposed to feed the family during shiva. The care, kindness, and support displayed through providing for the mourners’ needs helps ease the feelings of pain and loss. The house was filled with laughter, stories, and tears to honor the family member, friend, teacher, and rabbi who touched lives and was loved by many. That I could honor her by being one of the ten adults needed to form a minyan was quite something. Some made a point to visit in time for service to insure there were enough for the prayer group and recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. Aside from my uncle, cousins, and I taking a couple trips to the beach for fresh air, we spent the week at the house because as Tevye says, “it’s tradition”. I also went for a sunrise hike on Christmas to heal in another way and to know that the wheel of life would continue turning. The time at the house was okay, but the real challenge for me was no music, which is also therapeutic. Sitting shiva is a time of deep reflection, intense bereavement, healing, and love.
While arguing with family members about my coming I was looking up plane tickets- not that they could have really stopped me or sent me right back. I knew it was something I needed and wanted to do. I didn’t care about the time, money, or as mom argued, “the boredom”. In the end, I got to be with family (most of whom I hadn’t seen in awhile), honor my aunt, get in touch with my inner-Jew, grieve and heal, swim in “my” ocean, see an awesome sunrise, and eat a ton of bagels and lox. The bonus was celebrating the Festival of Lights for the first time with my other family members, making it one of the best and most memorable Chanukahs. My trip to California ended up being more or less like a two week vacation.
When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice. ~Cherokee Proverb
.A Yahrzeit candle in loving memory of
Oct. 9, 1949-Dec. 17, 2005
1989 -July 3, 2003